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A tribute to the comedians of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Wed 21st Apr 2021

Entertainment from the 1910s to the 1950s saw a revolution in comedy that had never before been seen. Given the technological limitations of film at the time, comedy quickly emerged as an ideal genre for silent films due to its ability to convey comedy with visual action and physical humour. This early form of comedy was entitled slapstick, and brought fame to many during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  From the offensive, to the timeless, to the invention of tropes, these are some of the comedians that shaped the entertainment industry in its early days, and who still bring smiles to peoples faces today.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Picture: SUPPLIED
Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Picture: SUPPLIED

Active 1899-1976

"You'll never find a rainbow if you're looking down."

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin would have to be one of the most influential stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most important figures in film history. An English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer, Chaplin was an icon of the silent film era. His comedy sometimes had an undercurrent of sadness, and was often associated with his popular character, the Little Tramp; the man with the toothbrush mustache, bowler hat, bamboo cane, and that famous waddle-walk.  With a career spanning more than 75 years, Chaplin received many awards and honours - too many to list today. It is worth mentioning though, that he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1975 New Year Honours, was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1972, and six of his films have been preserved in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. Chaplin is one of the most famous faces today and homage to him for the way he could mirror human life in a flawed, frail, and funny way.

Abbott & Costello

Comedy act Abbott and Costello.
Comedy act Abbott and Costello.

Active 1935-1957

"This boy doesn't put himself with any party."

"That's right!"

"Is he Republican? No! Is he a Democrat? No! He's in between the two."

[audience member shouting] "He sure is. He eats like an elephant and thinks like a jackass!"

Comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello performed on stage, in films, and on radio and television during the early 40s and 50s. At the peak of their fame, their slapstick routines made them mega stars and the pair were the highest-paid entertainers in the world. The laughs that accompanied them during the Golden Ages of Hollywood boosted morale during the difficult times of WW2. They were referenced many times in the 1940s Looney Tunes cartoons and to this day, they are still the only two non-sportsmen honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York. Jerry Seinfeld, being an avid Abbott and Costello fan, included many references to them in his Seinfeld TV series, one being George Costanza's middle name "Louis", after Costello.

The Three Stooges

Actors (l-r) Larry Fine, Joe (Curly) DeRita and Moe Howard as the Three Stooges comedy trio in 1960.
Actors (l-r) Larry Fine, Joe (Curly) DeRita and Moe Howard as the Three Stooges comedy trio in 1960.

Active 1922-1970

"What is this you're doing?"

"The elevator dance."

"Elevator dance?"

"Yeah, there's no steps to it."

The Three Stooges are probably one of the first comedy groups that springs to mind when reflecting on the Golden Age. The American vaudeville comedy trio, composed predominantly of brothers, Moe, Larry and Curly (with the replacements of Shemp, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita after Curly's passing), were renowned for their slapstick and physical farce comedy styles. They often used their comedy to act as anti-heroes, commenting on the class divisions and economic trails of the Great Depression with their crude, slang-riddled, gibberish language. Their wacky antics and charm made for some of the most famous short subject films of the era, which remain as beloved by their audiences as they were when their last film was released over 60 years ago.

Martin and Lewis

Dean Martin (left) with Jerry Lewis.
Dean Martin (left) with Jerry Lewis.

Dean Martin Active 1932-1995
Jerry Lewis Active 1931-2017

Lewis: "Hey if Angelo was smart, he'd put us together don't you think?"

Martin: "I'm a solo act."

Lewis: "Well me too, but together we could...."

Martin: "I mean I go solo."

Singer Dean Martin and comedian Jerry Lewis were an American comedy duo. The pair met in 1945 and performed for ten years at the iconic Atlantic City's '500 Club' from 1946. Before their collaboration, Martin was a nightclub singer and Lewis performed a lip-synching comedy act to records. By 1949, they were on radio and later moved to television and films. In their early days on radio they performed as Martin and Lewis but became so popular they started using their full names. This was a smart move on their part as it helped them launch successful solo careers - which they did after their 10th anniversary of acting together.

Laurel & Hardy

Laurel and Hardy in the 1939 film The Flying Deuces.
Laurel and Hardy in the 1939 film The Flying Deuces.

Active 1927-1955

"Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!"

"Well, I couldn't help it…"

Stan Laurel and Oliver Norvell Hardy were a double act, famous for their performances together in silent and talking films. Respectively, the Englishman and American duo had well-established careers individually before teaming up for their slapstick routine, with Hardy as a pompous bully and Laurel as his child-like, clumsy friend. The pair went on to star in a number of hit films together, including The Battle of the Century, which involved a food-fight using over 3,000 cream pies. Hardy's popular catchphrase, "D'oh!" went on to inspire that of Homer in The Simpsons.

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball with Desi Arnaz. Picture: AP
Lucille Ball with Desi Arnaz. Picture: AP

Active 1928-1989

"The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age."

The woman remembered as the crazy, accident-prone, lovable Lucy Ricardo, Lucille Ball is a Golden Age icon and one of the most iconic female entertainers of all time. I Love Lucy premiered 64 years ago and is still one of the most loved shows of all time. Not only did Ball star in, but she also produced sitcoms I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy. She was also the first female to head the major Hollywood studio, Desilu Productions, which she also owned.  Nicole Kidman has been cast to play Lucille Ball in the upcoming American biographical drama, Being the Ricardos.

The Marx Brothers

Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo Marx in 1931.
Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo Marx in 1931.

Active 1905-1949

"Learn from the mistakes of others, you can never live long enough to make them all yourself..."

The brothers are almost universally known by their stage names: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo. With an ambitious stage mum, the boys from Manhattan's Upper East Side set sail as singers before becoming comedic legends on Broadway, and in motion pictures from 1905 to 1949. The Marx Brothers had thirteen feature films during the magical Golden Age of Hollywood, with five being selected by the American Film Institute as among the top 100 comedy films of the first 100 years, with Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera in the top fifteen. They are widely considered to be among the greatest and most influential comedians of the 20th century.

Bob Hope

Bob Hope entertains troops at Cu Chu Vietnam in December, 1970.
Bob Hope entertains troops at Cu Chu Vietnam in December, 1970.

Active 1919-1998

"You know you're getting old when the candles cost more than the cake."

Leslie Townes "Bob" Hope was a British-American stand-up comedian, vaudevillian, singer, dancer, actor and author. He began his career in the early 1920s and went on to have a career surpassing the Golden Age of Hollywood - it spanned almost 80 years! Hope appeared in over 70 films, 54 of them with Hope as the star, including a series of seven "Road" musical comedy movies alongside Bing Crosby. Hope hosted the Academy Awards an amazing 19 times, more than any other host. Praised for his comedic timing, one-liners and rapid-fire delivery of jokes, Hope helped establish modern American stand-up comedy.

W.C Fields

W.C Fields in 1938.
W.C Fields in 1938.

Active 1898-1946

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it."

W. C. Fields was an American comedian, actor, juggler, and writer. Known for his very witty dialogue and expertly delivered verbal humour and raspy drawl, Fields pushed the sensors in what was quite risque for the time. His comic persona was a charming drunk, a failing egotist and a man that jokingly-disliked children and dogs, yet still managed to remain a sympathetic character. Fields became a star in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy in 1923, where he played a colorful small-time con man - his stage and film roles that followed were often of similar scoundrel or browbeaten characters.

Buster Keaton 

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman - a 1928 silent film starring and co-directed by Keaton.
Buster Keaton in The Cameraman - a 1928 silent film starring and co-directed by Keaton. Supplied

Active 1899-1966

"A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny."

Buster Keaton, was an American actor, comedian, film director, screenwriter, producer - even stunt performer. Best known for his physical comedy and blank expression in silent films, he quickly earned the nickname "The Great Stone Face". Many of Keaton's films from the 1920s remain highly regarded, such as his 1924 film Sherlock Jr., and his 1928 film, The Cameraman. The 1926 film The General is said to be his greatest masterpiece and Orson Welles considered it "the greatest comedy ever made...and perhaps the greatest film ever made". Keaton was recognised in 1996 as the seventh-greatest film director by Entertainment Weekly, and the American Film Institute ranked him in 1999 as the 21st greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema.

Comedy has an amazing ability to bring great joy to people and laughter that makes our souls feel good - sometimes it can even ease pain; so thank you to these comedy legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood for all the belly laughs they've brought over the years.

By Claudia Slack & Kirsten Jakubenko.

Thank you to Benjamin Hall for your contribution.

Sources:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Chaplin 
  • https://www.charliechaplin.com/ 
  • https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000122/bio
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurel_and_Hardy
  • https://threestooges.net/quotes
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Stooges#Social_commentary,_satire,_and_use_of_language
  • https://www.quotes.net/movies/the_abbott_and_costello_show_(1952)_106908
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbott_and_Costello#Television
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucille_Ball 
  • https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000840/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm 
  • https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2580347/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_Brothers 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Hope
  • https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001362/ 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buster_Keaton
  • https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000036/ 
  • https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/82951.W_C_Fields 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._C._Fields 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_and_Lewis